The European Union views the establishment of democracy and rule of law in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan as being critical elements in the resolution of post-Soviet conflicts of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh.
"Without stability, without a consensus around the rules of the game in terms of democratic institutions, elections, and so on, there will not be a basis for a mutually beneficial relationship based on mutual trust and common values with the [EU]," the bloc's special representative for the South Caucasus, Peter Semneby, said in a June 12 interview, shortly after addressing the Permanent Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) behind closed doors.
Pointing to what he called the "very rough" election period Georgia and Armenia have gone through recently, and to Azerbaijan's upcoming presidential polls, Semneby added that, in his view, lack of progress in the field of democratization will make it even more difficult both for those countries and the international community to deal with regional conflicts. "I am deeply convinced that only by having legitimate, strong governments will it be possible to make the difficult decisions that will have to be made in overcoming [those] conflict situations," he said.
Semneby said he devoted a large part of his address to the OSCE to recent developments in all three conflict zones, especially to the situation in Georgia's separatist republic of Abkhazia, which he described as "very volatile and worrying." "There is a need to lower the temperature in that conflict, both on the Georgian-Abkhaz level and the Georgian-Russian level," he said. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi have been increasing since early March. In the course of the past three months, Russia has withdrawn from the 1996 CIS sanctions regime on Abkhazia, sent additional peacekeepers to the region -- allegedly without notifying Georgia -- and dispatched railway troops to reconstruct the depleted Sukhumi-Ochamchira railroad. In addition, then-Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 16 instructed his government to build closer ties with Abkhazia and Georgia's other separatist republic of South Ossetia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In late May, the United Nations Observation Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) released an investigative report that pointed to Russia's involvement in the shooting down of a Georgian military drone over Abkhazia on April 20. Although UNOMIG also blamed Georgia for carrying observation flights over Abkhazia, Moscow has described the report as "biased." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav042308f.shtml
Russia's moves and the quasi-unanimous international criticism that ensued have galvanized Georgia into renewing calls for a revision of the existing conflict resolution format. In particular, Tbilisi is pressing for the replacement of Russian peacekeepers that have been stationed in Abkhazia since 1994 under a joint UN-CIS mandate with Georgian and Abkhaz police troops under international supervision.
Georgia's efforts to have the peace mechanisms modified have so far received limited, though symbolically significant, international support. On June 5, the European Parliament approved a resolution that urged Moscow to immediately withdraw all its additional forces from Abkhazia. Arguing that the Russian troops had "lost their role of neutral and impartial peacekeepers," the European MPs also called for a revision of the existing peacekeeping format and suggested that the EU's Council "consider bolstering the international presence in the conflict zone by sending a [European Security and Defense Policy] border mission to the region."
Semneby told EurasiaNet that he believed neither the timing nor conditions were ripe for an attempt at revising the peacekeeping format. "I know there are some expectations that the EU should contribute to a mission. The Georgians are asking us to do this. This is still a hypothetical discussion. We need a basic understanding from all the parties on this issue. We do not think that any precipitated action should be taken," he said.
The EU envoy sounded equally noncommittal when asked whether Brussels would consider acting as the guarantor of a nonaggression pact between Tbilisi and Sukhumi, a suggestion Georgia's Deputy Prime Minister Giorgi Baramidze made on June 6. "In general the EU is ready to be more involved and we're ready to discuss any proposal. But a question like this is very hypothetical," he said.
UN-sponsored peace negotiations between Sukhumi and Tbilisi have been suspended since 2006, when Tbilisi dispatched police troops to the Upper Kodori Gorge, the only part of Abkhazia that remains under Tbilisi's control. Georgian officials insist that security forces in the Kodori Gorge are being used only in a local law-enforcement capacity. As a prerequisite to reviving talks, Abkhazia demanded that Georgia recall its troops and commit itself to not resuming hostilities.
Abkhazia's leader Sergei Bagapsh reiterated those demands after meeting with Javier Solana, the EU's High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, on June 6. He also said that Sukhumi opposes the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers.
Solana traveled to Abkhazia as part of a two-day mission to Georgia -- the aim of which, according to Semneby, was "to see what could be done to stabilize that very volatile and worrying situation and identify whether there is a way that the EU can be more involved in terms of supporting a stabilization and eventually a settlement."
The EU has allocated more than $45 million to Abkhazia's rehabilitation and has a liaison police officer stationed with UNOMIG. Yet, its political involvement in Georgia's protracted conflicts remains fairly limited, if only because EU member states disagree on that issue. Some countries argue that those conflicts are already dealt with by the UN and the OSCE, while others insist that the bloc should seek greater political involvement to counterbalance Russia.
After an alleged Russian missile landed in the Georgian-held part of South Ossetia in August 2007, EU member states decided to develop an ad hoc instrument -- called an Incident Assessment Mechanism (IAM). This body is designed to provide independent assessments of such incidents outside the bloc's borders. Although the IAM is now operational, Semneby said it was not activated after the shoot-down of the Georgian drone in order not to interfere with the UNOMIG investigation.
While the question of a greater EU involvement in the Abkhaz conflict remains hypothetical, Semneby says Brussels is willing, if asked to do so, to facilitate contacts between the parties. "Any contact can take place without a mediation and a process that can take place without a mediation is better than [a process that takes place] with a mediation," Semneby said in reference to the visit Georgia's Ambassador to the UN, Irakli Alasania, made in May to Sukhumi.
Jean-Christophe Peuch is a Vienna-based freelance correspondent, who specializes in Caucasus- and Central Asia-related developments.